War With Iraq: WWLD?

The nation's foremost religion historian asks: What would Martin Luther have to say about war with Iraq?

Reprinted with permission of Sightings.

Religious, theological, and spiritual justifications for starting or opposing an invasion of Iraq dominate current coverage. Most Europeans are bemused and many Americans are non-plussed by the dominance of evangelical pro-war talk. Reporting on the questioning by just-war-minded Catholics, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and peace churches is slight.

What if Christian Americans chose to complexify the debates by listening to some other witnesses? The following case study results from my re-readings of Martin Luther for a forthcoming biography of him. Many of his views on politics warrant criticism and rejection. But theologically, what has he to say?

Luther's enemies proverbially said of Muslims that "the Turks are Luther's luck." For two decades Catholic imperial and princely forces dared not move against the excommunicated reformer for fear of civil war. With the Turks threatening Vienna, they also could not risk foot-dragging by pro-Luther princes if they had to fight Muslim armies.


Luther, anything but pacifist, is well-known for counseling super-obedience by Christians to secular civil authority. But in this instance, when papal and other western European authorities asked him to support a new "crusade" against the evil Muslim, he was emphatic and repetitious: Never. Never. Never. Defensive war, he conceded, may be a necessity. Luther also taught that for a military person to kill in a war that he thought unjust and immoral was akin to murder.

His most consistent point: there dared never be any religious, theological, or spiritual claim that "our side" had a monopoly on virtue. Instead, Luther's whole theme was a call to prayer and repentance by "our side." The Muslims, he sometimes said, though they were evil, might be more pious than most Christians. Historian Mark Edwards writes that Luther saw the Turks as a "scourge of God," an apocalyptic sign that the world was coming to an end.

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Martin E. Marty
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